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Dallas train line impresses at transportation conference

Monday, August 16, 2010 by Kimberly Reeves

Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART), among the state’s transit agencies, has risen to the status of rock star among its peers for its efforts to integrate rail into the communities in and around the Dallas region.


In session after session at the 13th Annual Transportation & Infrastructure Conference in Las Colinas last week, the progress DART has made in planning and opening transit lines throughout the region was cited and praised. In fact, DART’s CEO, Gary Thomas, noted in a session on rail’s impact on communities that a quarter of all light rail track being laid in the country right now belongs to DART.


While the Austin region continues to talk about rail and whether to expand given some lackluster early ridership numbers for Capital Metro’s Red Line, DART has delivered. In the past decade, DART lines have grown to 48 miles of track, with another 25 miles set to open by December of this year. Just this week, the DART board of directors found an extra $140 million to complete its Orange Line link from Irving to DFW Airport, which is considered a critical connector once Love Field and DFW begin to compete head-to-head when the Wright Amendment expires in 2014.


Thomas, in his speech, talked about what has increased community buy-in to transit in a state that depends so heavily on automobiles. The 60 stations along the 90 miles of DART line, Thomas said, are being tailored to community interests and needs. The line is thriving because the agency is getting buy-in from neighbors in traditionally African-American neighborhoods around Fair Park, capitalizing on interest in the Asian trade district northeast of Dallas, and even working with member cities Farmers Branch and Carrollton on station area plans.


“We tell communities to take advantage of us,” Thomas said. “While our core mission is to move people, we also understand the different types of roles that public transportation and the light rail system can play in our communities.”


The economic impact of DART activity is $5.6 billion a year between 2009 and 2014, according to a recent study by the University of North Texas, said Thomas. That’s primarily due to the construction of the 28-mile northeast Green Line. Right now, DART is working with 500 active contracts, totaling $3.6 billion. Of those current contracts, 41 percent go to women- and minority-owned businesses, which Thomas said was the result of significant outreach efforts. On any given day, 2,200 workers are on the job constructing the Green Line track


DART’s Fair Park Station, which serves both residents and attendees of the three-week State Fair in September, has reported 3.5 million train boardings. On the day of the Texas-OU football game last fall, a total of 132,000 boardings were recorded, which was more than double expectations.


“There was a question, at this particular location, whether or not they’d ride the trains to Fair Park,” said Thomas, drawing laughter from the local audience. “We proved that to be the case, didn’t we? We planned for a 75 percent increase, around 55,000 boardings, and we had 132,000 trips that Saturday. We got the word out, and they came. It’s a little overwhelming.”


Dallas, even more so than Austin, has also focused on transit-oriented development, which began with the construction of Mockingbird Station just north of downtown. Thomas estimated about $8 billion in transit-oriented development, half of which is going on in Irving, which won’t see a rail station open until 2012. Interest is also high around the line’s new transit stops at Baylor and Parkland hospitals. People who work at the hospitals, Thomas said, are eager to be connected to TOD housing.


In another discussion on the wide-ranging panel, Art Guzzetti of the American Public Transportation Association outlined the current administration’s shift to an agenda of using transit to promote livability and economic development. Robert Lepore, of the company AECOM, noted the recent shift in focus to high-speed rail due to an infusion of $8 billion in stimulus money. The most successful recent rail projects, Lepore said, are part of a larger strategy to minimize the use of cars and not simply tied to a stand-alone project to eliminate trips to and from work.


And Gail Lyssey of the Federal Transit Administration walked through the agency’s newest efforts to streamline the New Starts and Small Starts grants, which distribute almost $2 billion a year for promising transit projects but have been cumbersome and difficult for transit agencies to navigate due to heavy federal oversight at checkpoints throughout the process.

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